Professional Development Module on Learning Communities

By Diane Starke, El Paso Community College


This self-paced module will provide the reader with background information, rationale, examples, and models of learning communities from various web sites.  The Developmental Education Learning Community at El Paso Community College is used to illustrate how learning communities work.  

Key Concepts:

Section 1:  Collaborative Learning

“Collaborative learning” is an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together. This is the educational philosophy undergirding most Learning Communities. Usually, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. Collaborative learning activities vary widely, but most center on students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it.  Collaborative learning represents a significant shift away from the typical teacher-centered or lecture-centered milieu in college classrooms. In collaborative classrooms, the lecturing/ listening/note-taking process may not disappear entirely, but it lives alongside other processes that are based in students’ discussion and active work with the course material. Teachers who use collaborative learning approaches tend to think of themselves less as expert transmitters of knowledge to students, and more as expert designers of intellectual experiences for students and as coaches or mid-wives of a more emergent learning process.

Paraphrased from Smith, Barbara Leigh and Jean MacGregor.  (1992).  “What Is Collaborative Learning?" in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, by Anne Goodsell, Michelle Maher, Vincent Tinto, Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor. National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Pennsylvania State University.

A professional development module on Collaborative Learning is available online at

Section 2:  Learning Communities
What are they?

A learning community is “any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses--or actually restructure the curricular material entirely--so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding of and integration of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise.” Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines, (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, and Smith, 1990, p. 19), as quoted in Jodi Levine’s article, “Beyond a Definition of Learning Communities” at  Her article includes a discussion of three models for structuring learning communities-paired or clustered courses, cohorts in larger classes, and team-taught programs-and an overview of Temple University's learning communities.

"Learning communities, in their most basic form, begin with a kind of co-registration or block scheduling that enables students to take courses together, rather than apart.  In some cases, learning communities will link students by tying two courses together, typically a course in writing with a course in selected literature or current social problems (Linked Courses)."
Tinto, Vincent. Taking Student Retention Seriously: Rethinking the First Year of College.  Speech presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, April 15, 2002, Minneapolis, MN.

In other cases, curricular learning communities are classes that are linked or clustered during an academic term, often around an interdisciplinary theme, and enroll a common cohort of students.  A variety of approaches are used to build these learning communities, with all intended to restructure the students’ time, credit, and learning experiences to build community among students, between students and their teachers, and among faculty members and disciplines.  Visit the National Learning Community Project's website at

An excellent bibliography on Learning Communities is available at

Why establish learning communities?

Learning communities are designed to address the problems that students encounter in a faculty-focused learning environment, as described in this excerpt from Vincent Tinto's work:

The experience of learning in higher education is, for most students, still very much a "spectator sport" in which faculty talk dominates and where there are few active student participants.  Just as importantly, students typically take courses as detached, individual units, one course separated from another in both content and peer group, one set of understandings unrelated in any intentional fashion to what is learned in other courses. Though there are majors, there is little academic or social coherence to student learning. (1).

Tinto's research  for the National Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment provided validation of the beneficial effects of learning communities on student learning and persistence.  Notably, the students in learning communities:

  1. Formed their own self-supporting groups which extended beyond the classroom
  2. Became more actively involved in classroom learning, even after class.
  3. Perceived themselves as having made significantly greater gains during the semester than did similar students in a comparison class.
  4. Persisted at a substantially higher rate than did comparable students in the traditional curriculum.
  5. Reported an increased sense of responsibility to participate in the learning experience, and an awareness of their responsibility for both their own learning and the learning of others. (5-6)

Tinto, Vincent. "Learning Better Together:  The Impact of Learning Communities on Student Success."  Promoting Student Success in College.

Section 3: Models for Study and Replication Below are five general models for organizing integrated learning communities, as summarized by Linda Sullivan at Maricopa Community Colleges:  There are hundreds of possible variations on these models limited only by the creativity and finances of the institutions who implement them.

Linked or Paired Courses — The simplest form of the learning community, in which two courses are paired. Co-registration is encouraged, but not mandatory. Each course is taught separately, but there may be some joint assignments, projects and discussions.
Freshman Interest Groups (FIG) — In this model, a cohort of freshmen enrolls as a small group (35-30 students) in three in-place, topically related courses. No faculty co-planning is expected, although faculty may participate in an orientation event for students in a FIG. Students in the FIG meet regularly with a peer advisor, and may participate in social events as a group.
Learning Clusters — This model is characterized by a cluster of 2-4 courses which are linked by common themes, historical periods, issues, or problems. The extent of faculty co-planning varies; usually there are some common sessions or assignments. Students co-enroll in the courses, but there are other students in the courses who are not co-enrolled.

Federated Learning Communities (FLC) — A cohort of students and a "Master Learner" enroll in three "federated", in-place courses. They also participate in a content-synthesizing seminar. The Master Leaner is a faculty member from a different discipline who takes the courses along with the students and leads a program seminar.

Coordinated Studies Programs — The most "seamless" of all the models, it is characterized by a multidisciplinary program of study involving a cohort of students and faculty drawn from different disciplines. Faculty plan and participate in all parts of the program. Courses are integrated into a " block" around a central theme. There is generally no distinction among discrete courses.

The First-Year Program Learning Communities at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

     Temple University first offered learning communities in 1993. Faculty and administrators looked to learning communities to help them address two key concerns: development of a sense of community and improvement of teaching and learning at the freshman level. When the program first began, only about 200 students participated. Now, over 1000 students enroll in the more than 40 communities offered.
     In Temple's learning communities, students enroll as a cohort of 15 to 35 students in two courses that share a particular theme. Faculty work together and with the students to integrate course material and to promote collaborative learning, students learning from each other as well as from their teachers. The majority of learning communities at Temple are linked-course communities that satisfy Core, college and/or major requirements. One of the two courses in the community is typically one of two first-year writing courses: Introduction to Academic Discourse or College Composition. Many students will enroll in a community featuring a first-year math course such as college mathematics, precalculus, or calculus. Other courses in the communities come from schools/colleges and departments across the University, including: chemistry, women's studies, African-American Studies, criminal justice, psychology, sociology, journalism, theater, film and media arts, and engineering.
     Many learning communities feature a section of the Freshman Seminar, Learning for the New Century. The seminar plays a valuable role in introducing students not only to the goals and expectations for learning communities, but also to what it means to be a college student. Students practice important skills such as note taking, test taking, critical thinking, and time management, in the context of the other discipline-based courses in the community. In the seminar, students are also introduced to the technology skills and resources, such as e-mail, that they need to succeed in college and beyond.

Excerpted from the Learning Communities at Temple University Faculty Handbook, Fall 2002
Available online at the handbook includes many useful resources including information on the summer reading project, research reports on faculty and student reactions to participating in learning communities, and learning community planning and evaluation guides.

Integrated Learning Garden, Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction,
Tempe, AZ

At the Maricopa Community Colleges, three major types of integrated learning experiences are provided for students: Linked Activities, Linked Courses, and Seamless Courses. As the complexity of the learning community design increases, so does the number of the following components imbedded in it.

Co-Learning —These may range from one joint paper or assignment to completely integrated activities. When activities are merged, it may be difficult to distinguish to which "course" an assignment is associated--it will have components of all courses imbedded within it

Co-Curricular Planning — As with all components of Integrated Learning Communities, the degree of Co-Planning varies according to the model and degree of integration. Co-Planning may consist of faculty discussing the linking of one assignment in separate courses. On the other extreme, faculty may jointly create a Coordinated Studies program, in which they co-plan, co-teach, and co-assess.

Co-Teaching — In Linked or Paired Courses, which are two discrete courses with some joint assignments or activities, there is generally no team teaching. Occasionally, faculty may do presentations or "guest appearances" in each others' classes. In Coordinated Studies, all faculty teach together all the time.

Co-Assessment — In Linked or Paired Courses, joint assignments are generally graded separately, although other faculty may offer comments. In Learning Clusters, faculty often grade assignments together, each offering expertise in a different discipline. In Coordinated Studies, all assignments are graded by all faculty. Students receive one grade for the entire group of courses.

Co-Enrollment — In some types of learning communities, students are not required (nor expected) to be enrolled in all linked courses. For instance, students in an English 101 class who write an English paper on politics (as students in a political science course also do) are not required to be enrolled in the political science course (and those students are not required to be enrolled in the English course). Other times, students co-enrolled represent a subset of a larger, in-place course (such as in Freshman Interest Groups). In some models, such as Coordinated Studies, all students are required to be co-enrolled in all linked courses.

GateWay Community College, a Maricopa CC system institution in Phoenix, AZ, offers three models designed to serve different student needs--as described in a monograph by Geri Rasmussen and Elizabeth Skinner.

The STARS learning community is a developmental program focused on the participants' need for an orientation to the student role. This community integrates the lowest level reading and writing courses with an academic success course, connected with the theme of "success following from self responsibility." The Success Orientation Seminar course hosted numerous speakers from various areas of the college.

The CLOUT learning community is a freshman-year experience uniting Introduction to Human Communication (COM 100), Critical and Evaluative Reading (CRE 101), and First Year Composition (ENG 101) around a common skill focus, the power of language. The CLOUT framework is presented in the form of a Venn diagram to show the overlaps within the 3 courses and their emergence over the semester.

The LINK learning community combines a content course (Psychology) and two developmental skills courses(reading and writing). This design was intended to address the problem that skills courses are often less than effective because they lack a real-life context in which students can practice the skills they are learning. At the same time, LINK gives students the support in reading and writing skills that they need in order to succeed in the introductory Psychology class.

Learning Communities, Richland College, Dallas, TX

Richland College's learning communities are designed with the goal that students from different backgrounds and faculty from different disciplines working together will develop a wider understanding of the diversity of knowledge.  Not only are learning communities available in traditional academic majors, such as mathematics, psychology and English, but also in the certificate programs in Global Studies; Mind, Body & Health; and Peace Studies. Most of their learning communities follow the cluster model and are developed by placing two disciplines in dialogue about a particular theme.

ESOL Program: Paths to Success in the U.S.-- Intensive English as a Second Language Program
An English as a Second Language program which allows credit ESOL students to acquire English language skills more rapidly by attending class every day and taking 18 credit hours in one semester while expanding their knowledge of U.S. culture and preparing for the Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP) test.  Reading, writing, grammar, speaking, listening and computer skills will be learned and applied. Can be applied for credit toward a Global Studies certificate.

Psyched on Math
This combined Developmental Math and Psychology class explores how people learn and what it takes to be successful in math class and other classes.

Shakespeare as Literature & Performance Art
A 6 credit hour Learning Community granting transferable credit in English and Drama

PC: Political Correctness Then and Now
A 6 credit hour Learning Community that explores how America has defined the "right" thing to do politically from the past to the present.  Counts as one Government and one History course

The College Writing Survival Course
This 6-credit hour course teaches the reading and writing skills necessary to achieve success in college and university courses.

The Puzzle of Selfhood: A Look Through The Lenses of Philosophers and Psychologists
This learning community examines what great minds such as Plato, Aristotle, Freud, Skinner, Frankl, and others had to say about who we are. Uses novels, short essays, films, and much class discussion as resources.  Earns 6 transferable credit hours in Philosophy and Psychology.

Biology from a Chemical Perspective
This Learning Community is designed to help students with little or no background in chemistry succeed in the majors' biology course. This Learning Community combines CHEM. 1405.8846 and BIOL. 1406.8846. Students receive 8 transferable credit hours in those science courses, and will be prepared to succeed in more advanced chemistry and biology courses. 

Race, Class and Gender in American Culture
This team-taught, interdisciplinary course explores the issues of Race, Class and Gender in American Culture through film and literature.  Earns 6 hours transferable credit in English and History.

American Literary Revolutions:  The Harlem Renaissance and the Beat Generation
Experience the lives, works, and cultural history of two twentieth century literary movements through the writings of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and many others. Earns 6 credit hours in English and History.

Utopias and Dystopias: The Quest for a Perfect World
This learning community follows the search for a perfect world from Plato's Republic to the twentieth century. Grants 6 hours credit in English and Government.

Race, Ethnicity, and Community:  An Inside Look at Multicultural America
A 6 credit hour learning community for credit in History and Sociology. The community will study of the effects of historical, social and cultural influences on our own behavior and our perceptions of others. The journey towards understanding others begins with understanding ourselves. Grades are determined by four tests, a journal covering each minority group covered, a group presentation/paper, class participation, and attendance. Can be taken for credit toward the Global Studies certificate.

University of Michigan Learning Communities (MLC)

These learning communities vary in several ways, including academic and participation requirements, thematic focus, residential or non-residential setting, size, and eligibility by college and class standing. Non-residential learning communities include the:

Comprehensive Studies Program — an academic support program targeted toward students who are underrepresented in higher education; components include a Summer Bridge Program for newly admitted freshman, intensive course sections, academic and personal counseling, tutorial services, career-oriented Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs), and mentoring.

Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program — establishes research partnership between students and faculty; components include peer advising, research peer groups, and annual student research symposia.

University Mentorship Program
— matches up groups of four first-year students with an older student and a faculty or staff member who all share the same academic interests. The goal is to provide students with mentoring relationships, networking opportunities, year-long guidance and support, and in general to help ease the transition to college.

Developmental Education Learning Community at
El Paso Community College, El Paso, TX

During Spring semester 2002, a group of instructors decided to offer a Developmental Studies Learning Community at the Transmountain Campus of El Paso Community College with four goals in mind:

  1. to increase retention and persistence among developmental students
  2. to increase TASP Test pass rates in reading, writing, and mathematics
  3. to provide students with a strong foundation of computer skills
  4. to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment

Four courses were identified to be offered in a block (two on MWF and two on T/T).  The courses included READ 0308 (Reading in the Content Area, reading level approximately 8-10th grade), MATH 0300 (Basic Mathematics), ENGL 0310 (Basic Composition), and ITSC 0301 (Introduction to Computers).  All four courses were scheduled in a computer room so that students would have computer access in each class.
    The Reading, Math, and English instructors participated in technology training sessions during the summer.  The computer instructor taught the informal classes which included Microsoft Word, Power Point, Excel, and Internet searches. The instructors also traded textbooks and course syllabi so that each would be knowledgeable about the content in the four courses.
    Recruitment for the classes began during Spring semester and continued throughout the summer.  Twelve students had enrolled when classes commenced in the fall.
    The instructors attempted to integrate instruction throughout the semester.  They met both formally and informally to plan lessons and units and to talk about the progress of individual students. The preliminary results of this pilot project are encouraging:

  1. Twelve students (100%) completed and passed the reading class.
  2. Eleven students (92%) completed and passed the computer class.  One student dropped mid-semester.
  3. Twelve students completed the English class, but one failed.
  4. Twelve students completed the Math class, but one failed.
  5. Eleven students re-enrolled for Spring semester.  One did not return due to child-care issues.  One re-enrolled but had to drop because her unit was deployed to the Middle East, so ten students are currently enrolled.
  6. Informal feedback from the students was very positive.  They loved being with a common group, and they also liked having their classes in a computer room where they had access in every class.  They also liked the fact that their instructors collaborated on their assignments.  In addition, they could see connections among their courses.

TASP Test scores will be monitored as will future persistence in college.

Reflecting on this experience, the instructors agreed that four courses were too many to offer as a Learning Community.  It is much too difficult to recruit students who are eligible for all four courses.  It would be much more feasible and successful to offer two or at the most three courses in a learning community.

We have provided a link to an example of a project that was assigned during the last five weeks of the semester.  We have included the assignment instructions and one student’s project from beginning to end.

Section 4: Implementation Strategies Vincent Tinto, in his article "Learning Better Together" (referenced in Section 2), explains that although the content of learning communities may vary, they all have three things in common:  shared knowledge, shared knowing, and shared responsibility. Constructing learning communities around these commonalities may at first appear to be a daunting task.  There are some excellent guidelines and resources available, however.  For example, The National Learning Communities Project offers extensive food for thought regarding the planning and implementation of learning communities at your institution. Their website provides resources and activities to guide you as you consider the following questions:

  • What do we need to know and how do we get started?
  • Who leads learning communities?
  • How are they taught?
  • What role do libraries and information technology play in LCs?
  • How should we assess our learning communities?
  • What do they cost?
  • How can we fund them?
  • How do we market learning communities to students, faculty, advisors, and others?
  • How can we encourage diversity in our learning community program?
  • What approaches to faculty development work best?

While every learning community will be unique, the Maricopa Integrated Learning Community monograph "Steps for Initiating a Learning Community"( addresses some of the typical steps that most instructors will find useful in working through the initial planning and implementation phases:

  1. Identifying a Need for Learning Communities
  2. Trying Small-Scale Linked Course Activities
  3. Determining the Feasibility of Linked Courses
  4. Preplanning a Linked-Course Program
  5. Observing Linked Courses
  6. Keeping a Daily Log
  7. Conducting Classroom Research
  8. Inviting Guest Observers
  9. Assessing Student Outcomes
  10. Continuing Development

The monograph's appendices ( include planning documents such as:

  • Learning Community Planning Guide
  • Identifying Parallel Concepts
  • Describing Commonalities in Linked Courses>
  • Integrating Courses Around a Central Theme
  • Monitoring Progress with an Assignment Matrix
  • Reflecting Assignments in Course Grades
  • Identifying Complementary Relationships
  • Coordinating of Content and Skill Course

The following print materials are also helpful in setting up and sustaining learning communities:

Shapiro, N. S. & Levine, J. H. (1999). Creating learning communities: A practical guide to winning support, organizing for change, and implementing programs.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Killacky, J., Thomas, C., & Accomando, A. (2002) Learning communities and community colleges: A case study.  Community College Journal of Reaserch and Practice. 26 (10), 763-775.

Another approach that deserves attention is the creation of electronic learning communities.  See "E-Learning Communities and Cultures" by Ray Rose at and Howard Rheingold's seminal work The Virtual Community at


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